Fixing a problematic North Las Vegas casino fueled the gaming pursuits of Bally’s Soo Kim

April 6, 2021 11:00 PM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
April 6, 2021 11:00 PM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

A decade ago, when the Bally’s name was attached to one of the gaming industry’s leading slot machine developers, Soo Kim was gaining an understanding of the casino business.

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Standard General, a New York-based investment firm that Kim co-founded, led a group of creditors that took ownership of Aliante Station in North Las Vegas following the bankruptcy reorganization of Station Casinos in 2011.

The 200-room hotel-casino, built at a cost of $662 million, opened with great promise in 2008 in a community slated for high-residential development. A year later, the recession turned North Las Vegas and areas surrounding Aliante Station into one of several “ground zeros” in Southern Nevada for foreclosures and stalled construction projects.

Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim testifies in front of the Nevada Gaming Commission in March.

Soo and debt holders kicked out Station Casinos, which ran the property during the reorganization, and installed a management team led by veteran gaming executive Terry Downey. But Soo kept close tabs on the locals’ casino.

“I was technically the CEO of Aliante,” Soo said in an interview last week. “Not many people know this.”

He watched and took notes as Downey’s team utilized a $2.8 million infusion from the owners and turned around Aliante’s fortunes within 14 months. The name Station was dropped, the casino was reconfigured, all areas of the property were rebranded, and a focus was placed on bringing customers to an area embarking on economic recovery.

“There is a good feeling here among our team members and our guests,” Downey said in a 2014 interview. “We see a good future ahead of us.”

In 2016, Boyd Gaming Corp. bought Aliante for $380 million.

The success of the Aliante story is driving Kim’s current focus on the casino industry.

Aliante Casino in North Las Vegas/courtesy photo

Standard General acquired a 39% stake in Rhode Island-based casino operator Twin River Worldwide Holdings and Kim joined the company’s board in 2016. He became chairman in 2019. Terry Downey, who had a long career in Las Vegas, also joined the company’s board in 2019.

Last fall, Kim spent $20 million to purchase the iconic Bally’s name and trademarks to replace Twin River. The reason? Kim believes a well-recognized brand should be attached to a company with a national strategy.

The name Bally’s went dormant in 2015 after the gaming equipment maker was sold to Scientific Games for $5.1 billion. After purchasing Bally’s Atlantic City from Caesars Entertainment for $25 million, Kim struck an agreement with the company for the Bally’s name.

Over the past 24 months, Bally’s has grown past its two original casinos in Rhode Island and acquired properties throughout the U.S. The company is on pace to have 15 casinos in 11 states by next year. Casino acquisitions in Nevada, Illinois, and Indiana should close this year and the development of a small Pennsylvania casino could be completed by 2022.

As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Kim has also set out to create an interactive division for Bally’s that would oversee the company’s entry into sports betting, igaming, and daily fantasy, including the $125 million purchase of sports betting platform Bet.Works and a naming rights deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group for its regional sports networks.

Meanwhile, Bally’s CEO George Papanier is transforming properties under the Bally’s name companywide, starting with Eldorado Shreveport.

Nevada’s casino market remains an expansion target, even with Bally’s recent purchase of Montbleu Resort in Lake Tahoe. Most analysts believe the company will buy a Las Vegas Strip casino. Soo and Papanier were non-committal about the Strip, but there is no question Bally’s has a plan for entering the destination resort market.

Lake Tahoe, Bally’s Atlantic City, and Hard Rock Biloxi are the starting points.

The company is one of three finalists for a gaming development in Richmond, Virginia, with its proposed $650 million Bally’s Richmond Casino Resort. The 61-acre site is six miles from the downtown area. The company needs to win the bidding process with the city, then take the proposal to Richmond voters.

Kim also has eyes on New York City, where state lawmakers are considering moving up the timeline for a potential integrated resort development, which includes a site in Manhattan.

“That’s where I’m from. It’s home base for us. We know New York will be a very political process,” Kim said.

A New York City casino bidding war would propel Kim and Bally’s into the heavy-hitters arena. New York will attract everyone from Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts, to other luminaries, such as billionaire Steve Cohen, who now owns the New York Mets.

“Any New York license will be a mixture of building and renovation,” Kim said. “This team has done it all. We feel confident we can deliver.”

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.